I Love to Tell the Story: The Unforgiving Servant

31 Aug

forgiveness(a sermon for August 31, 2014, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Matthew 18:21-35)

I ask you, are there any more difficult words for us to speak than “I forgive you?”

I have to confess that whenever I approach a biblical text like the one we’ve shared this morning I am frequently overwhelmed by its utter enormity in the face of reality.  By that, I mean that it is one thing for us to hear Jesus’ teaching that if a brother or sister sins against us we are to forgive that person “not seven times, but… seventy-seven times”  (or seventy times seven,” depending on the translation!); it is quite another for us to actually put that teaching into practice!  I think, for instance, of the woman who has suffered years’ worth of physical and emotional abuse at the hand of their spouse or partner; is she literally expected to “forgive and forget?”  Or the parents and families of children who have been abducted and have gone through things no child should have to endure: in all honesty, friends, as a parent there’s a very big part of me that wonders if forgiveness in such situations is even possible!  And yet, if we are to take Jesus at his word in our reading this morning, not only are we to forgive those who sin against us, we are to do so without hesitation, and without limit!

It’s one of the cornerstones of the Christian message, friends, but I’m here to tell you this morning that it’s way too big for me!  I can’t always hold on to it the way I should; more often than not I struggle to rise to the challenge of it.  But, then… I suspect that I’m not alone in that, am I?

I mean, we don’t even have to think in terms of such extreme scenarios to feel the enormity of what Jesus is asking: all most of us have to do is consider all those sins of thoughtlessness, verbal cruelty and an uncaring spirit that have been done against us; the “little” slights and offenses that in and of themselves don’t seem like all that much, but cumulatively have a way of wreaking havoc on relationships; creating conflict that festers far too long and much too deeply, often to the point of eating us alive!  Think for a moment of the worst thing that someone has ever said to you or done to you – for that matter, not even the worst thing (!) – think of someone just recently who has really hurt you by something they’ve said or done, and then imagine saying to that person, “I forgive you,” and what’s more, meaning it; having it come, as the gospel puts it, “from your heart.”  Think of that, and then you begin to get some sense of the enormity of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.  The fact is, this is one of those passages of scripture that tends to weighs a ton upon our shoulders, because it has a way of exposing our weakness that we can’t avoid!

That’s what’s at the heart of the admittedly difficult parable that we’re looking at this morning: the deceptively simple story of a man who is forgiven a huge debt that he owes a king (10,000 talents, we’re told, a huge amount even by today’s standards), and yet refuses to show mercy to a fellow servant who owes him, by comparison, a paltry sum; an act for which, in the end, he’s punished, thrown in debtor’s prison and “handed over to be tortured” until every denarii of the formerly forgiven debt is paid off.  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” Jesus says to them, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Now granted, this is a story with a very clear moral: that those of us who have been forgiven ought to forgive; that forgiving “seventy-times-seven” is not merely a suggestion, but an imperative; and that there are consequences for a lack of mercy.  But what I would suggest to you today that there’s more to the parable than simply that.  Because remember that as he so often does, Jesus uses this story to make a point about the Kingdom of God; and in this case, the kingdom is to be compared to this extraordinarily forgiving king who had mercy on his slave who had run up such a debt!  So what we really have in this story is this remarkable evocation of the utter grandeur of God’s incredible and limitless forgiveness; and we end up seeing this forgiveness in comparison to our own, which as it turns out, is far, far less than that of God!

In other words, this is not a story that portrays you and me in the greatest of light!  Like Peter, we might well be interested in knowing what we’re required to do where forgiving others is concerned (“How often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”); how many times we need to be magnanimous about things before we can then legitimately hold on to our well-deserved grudge. But here comes Jesus, who not only raises the seven acts of forgiveness to 77 (and quite possibly 490!), then who goes on to talk about a king, of all people who easily forgives the debt of a slave on a scale that we can’t even begin to comprehend!

But that’s the point, you see; for this is a story about a God who is greater than our comprehension… and more forgiving than we deserve.  For though we’ve run up this incredible debt of sin; though the conflict and separation that exists between us and God so often just seems to fester and worsen by “the devices and desires of our own hearts,” God still forgives; and does so again, and again, and again, easily and joyfully erasing the debt we’ve accumulated and reconciling us to himself.

It all comes down to God’s forgiving heart; God’s relentless determination to make us his own and to bring us all into the circle of his divine purpose.  Bottom line is that we all stand in the need of forgiveness; and it is only by grace, manifest in divine forgiveness and love, that we are set free from the sheer weight of the moral debt that we owe God.  But here’s the irony of it, friends; all those things that are seemingly impossible for us to forgive are in the end forgivable offense in light of what God has already forgiven us!  What this parable teaches us is that just as love given can be the only true response to love received, the only way that we can adequately answer to God’s forgiving heart is to rise to that challenge of forgiving others!

And, no, it’s not easy for us; nor is it usually a one-time effort.  L. Gregory Jones, a professor of theology at Duke University, writes that forgiveness is not some “isolated, occasional heroic act, but rather [it’s] a way of life, a constant practice of Christians.”  Its central goal is “not to get over guilt; it is to reconcile, to restore communion with God, with one another, and with the whole creation.”  In other words, forgiveness is what brings us together.  When we truly forgive others, we are reaching out to heal brokenness.  We are doing what God has done for us, and we are participating in what God intends for us with each other.  And in that regard, it is true; forgiveness from our hearts is our mandate as Christians; and moreover, it’s what marks the beginning of new life, of changed hearts, and even a better world.

You know, to tell the truth I’ve debated as to whether to tell you this story from the pulpit, because frankly all these years later I still feel a little embarrassed about it.  But I think I will, because for me it serves as something of a parable about forgiveness and new life.  You see, years ago while I was in college (and very young and stupid), I accused a good friend of mine, a girl I worked with, of stealing something from me.  The details of what happened are unimportant except to say that my accusations were baseless, and they hurt my friend a great deal.  Incredibly stupid… but we were kids and in those days I managed to do stupid in great abundance!  In pretty short order when she’d confronted me with how much I’d hurt her, I offered up what was a heart-felt apology, we made up and that was pretty much the end of it…

…except for the better part of a decade, friends, I never forgot it.  I felt so bad about what I’d done, accusing this sweet girl about being a thief.  I mean, here I was, studying to be a minister, for crying out loud (!); what kind of a Christian does that to a friend?  And I always said that someday I was going to tell her again just how sorry I was that it had ever happened;  but, since she’d gone on with her life and I’d gone on with mine, I doubted that I’d ever get the chance.

Well, as fate would have it, a number of years later I did get the chance (she asked me to sing with her in church, believe it or not!) – so while we were rehearsing I mustered up the nerve to ask if she remembered what had happened way back when.  Now, I don’t know if she was being kind, because at first she acted as though she didn’t even know what I was talking about.  But then, as I began to remind her of the whole, horribly embarrassing story, I began to see that tiny flicker of recognition in her eyes;  and when I’d finally finished pouring my heart out, she just smiled, put her hand on my arm and said, “Michael, I forgave you for that years ago!  Why are you still thinking about it?”

Friends, I’m not kidding when I tell you that at that precise moment, it was like the weight of the world was lifted up off my shoulders and tossed away forever!  I think about it now, so many years later, and I still realize not only what an incredible, gracious gift that was, but also and especially what it says about the kingdom of God in our midst; what it says about you and me and our calling as Christians and as the church: to bring together those who are divided and conflicted and hurting under the shelter of God’s infinite and redeeming love; dwelling together in great anticipation of the promised kingdom of heaven.

I only say it because as I look out on all of you sitting in these pews every Sunday, I know that a lot of you have come here nursing grudges of every shape and size.  I know how it goes, because I’ve been there:  someone was rude to you and never apologized for it.  That so-called “friend” let you down, broke a promise or betrayed you in a way that has really damaged the friendship.  You’re mad at your spouse, or your family, or your neighbors, or your church, because somewhere along the line they slighted you, or ignored you, or insulted you, or failed to be there for you the way they said they would; and maybe they did it inadvertently, but maybe they really were being judgmental and mean!  At any rate, you’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re confused, and you honestly don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it!

Friends, believe me when I tell you that this is the stuff that “gray areas” are made of!  But it’s precisely in the midst of this kind of hurt and confusion that Jesus comes to us, urging us to forgive as God has forgiven us.  How many times do we forgive those who sin against us; seven times?  Seventy-seven?  Seventy times seven?  Might as well be seventy million, because in Christ the numbers don’t matter; it’s our way of life that does!  Beloved, forgiveness is our spiritual work: it is the music we play before God, and sometimes it’s a very hard song to sing.  But as any musician will tell you, when we keep working on the song – when we practice, practice, practice (!) – eventually we discover that beautiful melody that’s always been inside of us; that wonderful song of love and mercy that God intended for us to sing all along.

So might we learn to sing – and forgive – ever and always from the heart.

Thanks be to God!


c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on August 31, 2014 in Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series


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